Western Mail Profiles: Dr Anwen Elias

‘Parties for independence must focus on all issues’

Anwen Elias is a Lecturer in Politics in Aberystwyth University’s Department of International Politics, and is Director of the Institute of Welsh Politics.

ON SEPTEMBER 9, more than 1.5million people marched through Barcelona to demand independence for Catalonia. In two years’ time, Scots will get their chance to vote on whether they want an independent Scotland, separate from the UK.

Such breakaways, if they ever happen, will fundamentally change the political map of western Europe. They would also inspire other political movements elsewhere in the world, who believe that their national communities should determine their own futures.

My research tries to understand how demands for independence come about, and how voters and parties respond to this increasingly important ‘territorial dimension’.

On the basis of this work, there are several reasons for doubting whether recent developments in Catalan and Scottish politics herald a new wave of state disintegration. For one thing, in those areas where there are pro-independence parties and movements, popular support for this constitutional option is generally low.

This is the case in Wales, where successive opinion surveys since 1999 show support for independence to have flatlined at around 10%. It is also true of Scotland – most Scots would prefer more devolution than an independent Scotland.

The ways in which other political parties have responded to increasing demands for independence are also important. Parties of the Left and the Right (like Labour and the Conservatives in the UK, and the Socialist and Popular parties in Spain) have tried to make themselves more attractive to voters by becoming more ‘nationalist’.

Where such efforts at re-branding have been successful – as has been the case for the Labour Party here in Wales – parties campaigning for independence have struggled to retain their electoral appeal.

Finally, when parties like the SNP or Plaid Cymru find themselves in government (most often in regional parliaments and assemblies), they have to stop obsessing about constitutional issues, and focus on the bread-and-butter issues of policy-making.

They need to convince voters that they can be trusted to run the nation’s affairs, and deliver a prosperous independent nation. If they can’t do this, they risk undermining the case for independence. The ways in which voters and political parties deal with this territorial dimension can constrain, and even undermine, the independence cause.

To contact Anwen please email awe@aber.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on 22nd October 2012, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.